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Death's Gambit

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Developer: White Rabbit
Release Date: Aug. 14, 2018

About Joseph Doyle

Joe has been known to have two hands with which to both play games and write reviews. When his hands are not doing those, he will put books, musical instruments, and other fun things in them.


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PS4 Review - 'Death's Gambit'

by Joseph Doyle on Jan. 9, 2019 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Death's Gambit is a side-scrolling, monster-slaying action RPG that raises you from the dead to serve as an agent of Death in a highly stylized, gothic world of beasts, knights, horrors, undying guardians and more.

Buy Death's Gambit

If you've been paying attention to games journalism or the gaming community for the past couple of years, the term "Souls-like" may send shivers up your spine. The term has been overused to the point of stripping the word of any meaning beyond, "tougher than most other video games." When I say that White Rabbit and Adult Swim's Death's Gambit is a Souls-like game, it couldn't be more accurate. Death's Gambit takes the From Software formula and applies it to beautifully animated 2D pixel art aesthetics. The game diverges from the original work by simplifying the lore and leveling mechanics found in the original — a much welcome change to those looking for a more straightforward experience amidst compelling gameplay. White Rabbit took the most salient parts of both Dark Souls and Metroidvania classics to create a game not quite original, but heavily steeped in both the vogue and nostalgia to create Death's Gambit.

For those uninitiated, Dark Souls is an action-RPG that forces players to more carefully consider their combat due to a limited stamina meter for dodging and attacking, along with stronger enemies. The combat, deep lore, and exploration comprise the bulk of From Software's Dark Souls. Similarly, exploration plays a central role in Metroidvania games, based on '90s megahits Metroid and Castlevania, 2D side-scrolling platformers that focused on combat and item collection to further the game and story by accessing new areas of the map. With that brief overview and history lesson out of the way, we can dive into why and how Death's Gambit works by combining these two genres.

By far the weakest aspect to Death's Gambit is the formulaic story and characters. The game begins with your character, Sorun, being dragged, assumed dead, along a path by a big reptilian man alongside the ruins of war — corpses, fire, etc. — when suddenly, you spring back to life to meet face-to-face with Death (scythe and all), who gives you a contract of immortality to do his bidding. You progress, grabbing hints of world-building from generic characters along the way, all the while piecing together Sorun's backstory with faux-death-throes flashbacks of his childhood. This is interesting, but if you don't catch one simple detail or can't keep track of the myriad city names, you're going to have to do some research. This issue becomes compounded by a relatively generic overarching narrative, with secret identities becoming obvious hardly halfway through the plot. Death's Gambit, leaning heavily toward the Dark Souls lore and narrative in its inspiration, lacks the immersion its original trumpets due to Gambit's more specific narrative, less-fleshed-out characters, and sparse world-building opportunities.

While the story leaves something to be desired, the gameplay in Death's Gambit is fulfilling and challenging enough to drive players to persist. You begin by creating your character, choosing their starting stats through class (e.g., heavy ax-wielders, magic users, quick fighters, etc.) and getting a starting item (e.g., attack items, healing consumables, trinkets, etc.). From here, you ride on your horse to the mild Gaian's Cradle, so you can run, jump, and climb through ancient ruins to get your bearings.

Combat, on the other hand, is the crux of the game and has just enough intricacies to keep it both fresh and compelling, relaxing Souls button schemes from a range of melee techniques that incorporate many different button presses to a single-button combo, coupled with special weapon-specific techniques you gain from training with different characters. Melee uses stamina, while weapons use up soul energy, which is refilled with attacks. While some may be critical of this simplification, rest assured that this sort of combat works well in the Metroidvania level design, simplifying rather than over-encumbering in the 2D space.

As you traverse the map and platform from one section of the map to the next, you're faced with shadowy peons, slashed through or blasted with relative ease if cautious, all the way up to each area's intimidating bosses that necessitate careful study of their move sets in order to best time dodges, jumps, and brutal attacks. As you defeat enemies, you gather shards, which you can spend on leveling up stats at save points, buying goods from vendors, or otherwise. By stopping at save points, enemies respawn, so you must battle them again, but perhaps you're stronger and wiser this time around. This repeats as you explore new areas and defeat bosses. The embrace of simplicity in control and variability in gameplay makes Death's Gambit a fun and effective twist on the classic Dark Souls gameplay.

The sound and visuals in Death's Gambit are both vibrant and ultimately impressive. The soundtrack by Kyle Hnedak (with a track by Alex Roe) is sweeping and soothing, using a mélange of drums, piano, and strings to sway the player into action. The driving, thudding pieces paired with boss battles juxtaposing the smooth, sentimental melodies of hub areas create a cinematic score that echoes the likes of Nobuo Uematsu's work for the Final Fantasy series in tone and orchestration, albeit slightly more dulcet. The music fills out the mood of each scene and area so appropriately that it's almost unnoticeable. A perfect example of this is the title screen, which shows the horrific aftermath of a long bloody battle, a sole flag fluttering as embers fly across the screen, while a subtle piano riff plays, filled out into a sea of violins that mirror the same melody, turning the tide from melancholy and meek to hopeful in a heartbeat.

Likewise, the pixel art is truly a sight to behold. From the simple ladder climbing and horse mounting animations to the fluttering grain against the green and gold hills in the background of flashback scenes, the artists at White Rabbit put a noticeable amount of time and effort into the animation and art of the game. Parallax visuals are used to create depth to the world you're exploring. Areas blend from murky greens and browns to striking blues and whites without feeling jarring or out of place. Death's Gambit is simply a beautiful game.

Death's Gambit saw the opportunity to take two genres and tweak them enough to make a new game out of it — and it worked. The core mechanics, while markedly unoriginal, are genuinely fun to play, and the stunning sound and visuals make it a treat to experience. This game is far from perfect, though, with a lacking story and unfortunately glitchy points, but is still worth the time and money to check out. While I wouldn't say that Death's Gambit is an improvement upon either Metroidvania or Souls-like games, it's a great addition to both genres.

Score: 8.5/10

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